Amid a backdrop of basketball lore and behind face masks, the students of Lawrence High School’s class of 2021 celebrated their commencement Tuesday evening in Allen Fieldhouse.
Friends and family gathered in the crimson and blue stands to celebrate the latest class of 354 graduating Chesty Lions. With the threat of rain looming, administrators decided late Tuesday morning to move the ceremony indoors. And due to COVID-19 pandemic protocols, attendance was limited to a crowd of 2,500 or less.
Still, the change of venue and attendance limit didn’t hamper the festive spirit of a class that has faced mountains of adversity during a global pandemic that spanned their entire senior year and more. Plenty of fist bumps, hugs and pats on the back were shared among students and faculty during the processional.
Superintendent Anthony Lewis told graduates the past 14 months have been filled with unique challenges, emotions, hopes, concerns and changes. He told graduates he was proud of the way everyone worked together.
“You adapted. You persevered. You achieved. But through it all, you finished. So take these pandemic experiences with you, your flexibility, adaptability, perseverance and your ability to make sacrifices and let them propel you into becoming successful adults.”
School board president Kelly Jones encouraged graduates to thank the educators, parents and adults who helped them along the way to this achievement.
Jones told graduates preceding generations are counting on them.
“There’s emerging data that your generation is well on its way to identifying as voters in a way not seen since World War II. Please hold onto that identity as the pandemic wanes and things mellow; please hold on to your identity as a voter. As a locally elected official I have more of an impact on your daily life than you’ve ever imagined,” she said, noting that as a board member she and board colleagues make decisions such as dress codes and school start times, which impact others.
“Board members took note when you walked out of class following the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, when you marched because Black Lives Matter and when you gathered in pursuit of environmental justice,” Jones said.
Senior speaker Corban Oberzan, who will attend Oklahoma State University next year, addressed his classmates with a speech titled “A Year to Remember.”
“Now, seniors, I know at times it feels like the world was falling apart just as we were reaching out to take it as our own, but I don’t think it matters so much as what we’ve been given as what we do with it that really counts,” Oberzan said. “Always believe in yourself, never be afraid to grow, and love one another.”
Co-speakers Jelani Ragins and Trinity Shorter, who’ve attended school together since kindergarten, reminisced at the podium.
“Most importantly, I will never forget being told, ‘It’s always a great day to be a lion.’” said Shorter, who will attend Howard University in the fall and was announced the winner of the 2021 Citizen of the Year award.
Ragins said the class has always “dared to be different.”
“Do you remember at the end of our 10th grade year when we were sitting in class and the next thing you know everyone around you is eating chicken nuggets from Burger King?” asked Ragins, who will attend Coe College. “That day a few of our own managed to order 3,000 chicken nuggets and personally deliver them to us.”
LHS Interim Principal Cynthia Johnson, who will leave LHS in June for another district position, reminded students, “You have the power to be great.”
She told students she didn’t read until the fourth grade.
“I stand here tonight — a person that was placed in special classes that was told you cannot and you will not do this and you will not do that — but I never heard in school what I could do.”
The 2020-2021 school year began in August like the previous school year ended — remotely. By November, district high schoolers could elect to attend in-person classes one day a week. It wasn’t until March 29 that the district’s secondary students could attend school fully in person, five days a week.
Graduate Katherine Stineman told the Times in a message that it doesn’t feel like the year should be ending already.
“I am so proud of the senior class because we truly made the most of this unpredictable year,” Stineman said. “I really loved getting to spend the last few months in person with my friends and make memories we didn’t get to make for most of the year.”
Stineman said the pandemic has made her think about things in a different way. Originally she thought she’d attend college out of state, but she will instead stay in Lawrence — with family close by — and attend KU. Stineman said she’ll pursue a career as a pediatric nurse practitioner.
Educators Melissa Johnson and Matt Ellis were chosen by the senior class as recipients of Teacher of the Year awards.
The ceremony was livestreamed on UclickTV. A replay can be found here.92849_LHS_2021_Commencement-REV-4-1